A Night To Remember Like Titanic, the ESPYs will spotlight black-tied guests foundering amid all the glitter

February 15, 1999

Of the countless black-on-black crimes staged for television in
1998, few were more senseless than Antonio Sabato Jr.'s tuxedo:
a black jacket/black shirt/black tie ensemble he wore to the
ESPY Awards on ESPN. Who, you might reasonably ask, is Antonio
Sabato Jr., and why was he part of what the network calls "the
greatest night in sports"? Sabato Jr. is a celebrity, that's
who, something historian Daniel Boorstin defines as a person
"well known for his well-knownness."

Celebrities, under union rules, are required to present each
other prizes on television every two weeks (unless they are
country musicians, in which case it's every three days). The
Golden Globes, the People's Choice, the Tonys, the Oscars, the
Grammys, the Emmys, the ESPYs: The awards themselves are
unimportant, except as fulfillment of a celebrity birthright.
"Why I'm up here, I have no clue," an elated Tiger Woods said
after accepting his second ESPY of the evening last year, a
trophy given him simply for being Tiger Woods. "But that's O.K.!"

You bet it is, Tiger. To paraphrase another ubiquitous awardee,
Jack Nicholson: We want you on that stage, we need you on that
stage. We need celebrity neediness, admire their admiration for
one another. Their emptiness fills us up. Sally Field was right:
We like them, we really like them!

So naturally we love award shows. We love the tortured,
torturous pairing of celebrity presenters. ("She has a mate
named Ellen! He has a plate in his melon! Say hello to.. Anne
Heche and Don Zimmer!") Make no mistake, the '99 ESPYs, which
ESPN will telecast live at 8 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 15, aspire to the
same lofty refrigerator shelf as the two ripest slices of
American cheese: "You put it on a scale of an Emmy or an Oscar,"
Dallas Cowboys owner and celebrity nitwit Jerry Jones says of
the ESPY. Says well-known person Janine Turner, "It's like the
Academy Awards of the sports world."

Which is to say, the ESPYs will have earnest acceptance
speeches. (Terrell Davis said movingly last year, "I'd like to
mention the pharmaceutical company that got me back in the Super
Bowl.") They will have the compulsory attendance of Billy
Baldwin. ("Billy Baldwin," an ESPN spokesman says by way of
explaining the actor's relevance, "has a dog named Munson.")
There will be scores of 12-button, lapel-free, Nehru-collared
tuxedos in the house (in the "hiz-ouse," as Stuart Scott is sure
to call Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall). Winners will be
escorted off stage by a fabulous babe in a sparkly dress. Though
a B-listed presenter will run rapid-fire through a roll call of
"awards presented earlier this evening"--last year, Women's
Golfer of the Year and Women's College Basketball Player of the
Year were made to feel like the athletic equivalent of Best
Sound in a Foreign Short--the program will run 12 minutes longer
than I, Claudius.

Best of all, we will see celebrity presenters distancing
themselves through body language from their wooden lines. "It's
great to see Jim Leyland in the house," Titanic star Billy Zane
recited last year of the eventual ex-Florida Marlins manager.
"We both know what it's like to be on a sinking ship." A long
silence ensued, followed by Zane's copious flop-sweating at the
podium, a single cough from the balcony and--if you listened
closely--the chirrup of a lone cricket.

Television doesn't get any better than that, though it may on
Monday. Among the attendees confirmed this year are Joe Torre
and Carmen Electra. ("He is the Yankee skipper! She was a skanky
stripper! Please welcome....")

I am counting the days.