Berman left heart in San Francisco to stick with burgeoning ESPN


It's been 13 years since anyone got Chris Berman to thinking seriously about pulling up stakes and leaving ESPN, and the bait nearly lured him 3,000 miles across the country.

Berman, who started with ESPN about a month after its Sept. 7, 1979, launch, recently recalled a two-pronged assault from the San Francisco Bay area that got him thinking about leaving.

KGO, the ABC-owned-and-operated station in San Francisco, contacted Berman with an offer to be the main sports anchor with a raise that would have taken his salary into six figures.

Just around the same time, Bob Lurie, then owner of the Giants, wanted to hire Berman as a play-by-play announcer for the team, which had been Berman's childhood favorite.

The offers were attractive, but, by then, Berman knew ESPN had not only become a viable entity, but also was on the verge of getting into the NFL, another step into the big time.

"While it [the Giants job] was something my heart had wanted for 20 years, it was too late," said Berman, who also turned down a big-bucks offer from NBC in 1989.

Oddly enough, the very day he accepted the ESPN job, Berman said he heard from a headhunter that he was a finalist for a sportscaster's job at a TV station in Monterey, Calif., which isn't all that far from San Francisco.

Berman, who will be host of tonight's three-hour observance of ESPN's 20th anniversary, is as intertwined with the channel's identity as chocolate is with Hershey, Pa.

But the onslaught of anniversary memories has gotten him to pondering what his life would have been like had there been no ESPN at that time to offer sanctuary to a 24-year-old making less than minimum wage doing weekend sports at a Hartford, Conn., NBC TV station, as well as radio in nearby Waterbury.

"I'd like to think that I'd be in this business somehow, although if you knock your head against the wall four or five times, who knows?" said Berman. "If it didn't work, I'd be 26 or 27 and I'd try for another job doing sports on TV."

Berman is a five-time national Sportscaster of the Year, so his place in sports broadcasting is fairly secure, and so is his future. With the synergy between ESPN and ABC Sports, both owned by Disney, Berman's profile has only grown larger in recent years, if that's possible.

Not only is he host of the popular "Sunday NFL Countdown" and "NFL Prime Time," and baseball play-by-play man in the regular season and the playoffs, but Berman also has served as host of the "Monday Night Football" pre-game and halftime segments for ABC for three years.

And, in January, all that synergy will land Berman smack dab in the middle of the Super Bowl as host of ABC's efforts.

"By staying here at ESPN, and now that we've merged with ABC, it's like getting a promotion every year," said Berman. "I do not have [a feeling of] 'Oh my God, I've got to go back to radio,' or 'I've got to do this.' When I'm not excited by [the work], I'll get out. I won't hang on. I won't fake it."

Memories of Mees

At some point during this evening's proceedings, expect Berman and Bob Ley, the two remaining on-air staffers who have been with ESPN roughly since its launch, to pay tribute to a fallen comrade, Tom Mees.

Mees, who joined the channel at launch, drowned three years ago in his backyard pool, and, as his fellow ESPN pioneers tell it, was a never-ending bundle of enthusiasm for his family and for his job.

Ley recently recalled that former Pittsburgh Penguin Mario Lemieux once interrupted the team's Stanley Cup celebration to do a live shot for Mees, who became a solid hockey announcer.

"Mario said, 'For you, Tommy, anything.' Tom never told that story on himself, and I only found it out after he died. That's the kind of guy he was," said Ley.

Berman, who worked the late "SportsCenter" with Mees for four years, said the most fun he's had at ESPN were those late programs, and added he still carries Mees' photo in his wallet.

"He was genuinely excited to do what he was doing and excited to share it with all of us," said Berman. "If we don't carry that spirit with us as a network, we've failed."

Comings, goings and returns

Beginning tonight, the early "SportsCenter" will air each weekday at 6, up a half-hour from before.

With Dan Patrick curtailing his 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" appearances to one weeknight per week, ESPN officials apparently want to make sure the 11 p.m. show starts on time, so that folks won't wander to, oh, CNN or, even worse, Fox.

So, by moving the 6: 30 show to 6, the theory is that events that follow it should end closer to their proper time, and, thus, the 11 p.m. "SportsCenter" should get started when it's supposed to.

Meanwhile, we note here that HBO's "Inside the NFL," which is cable television's longest-running series, returns for its 23rd season Thursday at 11 p.m.

Border wars

Even the hardiest of sports fans would acknowledge that weather information or breaking news is pretty important, but there has to be a better, less intrusive way to impart it on screen than channels 11 and 13 do it now.

Both stations run "crawls" that run a moving line of information across the bottom of the screen. But for some indecipherable reason, both stations -- with Channel 11 as the worst offender -- run these crawls against a solid border that prohibit a viewer from seeing the bottom of the screen.

In one case Sunday, Channel 11's border took up the bottom eighth of the screen for more than 90 seconds. Isn't there some way to make it transparent?

Pub Date: 9/07/99

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