Whether trying to do basketball play-by-play amid Dick Vitale's
cacophony or as the studio host on ESPN's NHL playoffs, John
Saunders has always exuded calm. He says he rarely gets anxious
before a broadcast but admits to having felt more than a bit
apprehensive before hosting the Dec. 23 edition of ESPN's The
Sports Reporters two days after the death of host Dick Schaap
(page 27), who died at 67 of complications following September
hip-replacement surgery. "I was nervous for the first time I can
think of in a long time," says Saunders, 46. "Then on top of
that was the overlying specter: Oh, I may be the guy who
succeeds him."

In TV-sports terms, assuming Schaap's chair on The Sports
Reporters is like replacing Lombardi at Green Bay or DiMaggio in
the Bronx. Sometime in the near future, though, Saunders will
likely be named permanent host--a title with which he's somewhat
uneasy even as he appreciates the opportunity it affords. "I
felt very uncomfortable when people asked me questions about
whether I wanted to do it permanently when Dick was still ill,"
says Saunders, who has served as the host since Schaap's last
show on Sept. 16. "I still feel a little bit of discomfort about
it."

Although Schaap was a celebrated writer and raconteur, his
signature attribute on The Sports Reporters was his
self-effacing manner. That's a trait shared by Saunders, who has
kept the show moving briskly as the fill-in host, dealing with
such vociferous panelists as New York Daily News columnist Mike
Lupica and Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "You can't compare
anybody to Dick, but John comes in every week with no ego," says
Washington Post columnist and Pardon the Interruption coanchor
Michael Wilbon, a frequent Sports Reporters panelist. "That's
good because there's enough ego on the set already."

"John shares another quality with Dick," adds executive producer
Joe Valerio, who joined the show in 1989, the year after its
premiere and the same year that Schaap replaced Gary Thorne as
host. "He's interested in what other people have to say. That
was Dick's great talent. He made people comfortable."

Mindful of that contribution, Saunders has a suggestion. "Even
if I become the permanent host, the name of the show should
become Dick Schaap's Sports Reporters," Saunders says. "It was
his show. He made the show. The name should honor him the rest
of the way."

--R.D.

Like Schaap, Saunders "is interested in what other people have
to say."

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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)