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Those Guys Have All the Fun

It's big and it's bloated but – like the sports empire that it covers – this is a book that you don't want to miss.

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Any American sports fan can hum the “SportsCenter” theme, a theme that Miller and Shales say ESPN uses without paying licensing fees to its composer. Familiar faces and voices from the ESPN roster offer wildly varying accounts of life in a world of never-ending scores and highlights. These reflections include the obligatory self-importance, bloviating, internecine feuding, and ego-stroking inherent in most media endeavors.

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Chris Berman, the network’s longest-running recognizable figure, emerges in these pages as arrogant but diligent. Alum Keith Olbermann is, as ever, difficult, contrarian and cutting with bosses and co-workers alike, but extremely popular with viewers. Future talk-show host Craig Kilborn comes across as the one guy who may have had it all figured out, using ESPN as much as it used him. Tony Kornheiser appears here as shrill, thin-skinned, and mean-spirited, while Dan Patrick manages to be smooth and down-to-earth all at once. Bill Simmons, ESPN’s online star, pokes fun at the monolith ESPN has become and wonders aloud about leaving, while giving short shrift to the clout and influence he would be sacrificing.

Other venerable well-known ESPN hosts heard in these pages include Bob Ley, the network’s steadiest journalist; Stuart Scott, who brought hip-hop flavor to “SportsCenter”; and glass-ceiling pioneers Gayle Gardner and Linda Cohn. More recent recruits and emerging stars (Hannah Storm and the Los Angeles duo of Neil Everett and Stan Verrett) weigh in with a mix of platitudes and insights.

One of the most intriguing characters is a man little known beyond Bristol: John Walsh, the oracular presence behind “SportsCenter,” the network’s signature daily highlights and news show. As countless interviews make clear, Walsh’s influence on what is seen on ESPN and its various offspring networks can not be overestimated.

A priceless comment comes from college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, who joined ESPN during its first year, just after he was fired as coach of the Detroit Pistons.

When someone from the start-up sports network called Vitale and inquired about his interest, the exchange was memorable.

“He says, ‘I’m with a new network called ESPN,’ and I swear I said something to the effect like, ‘That sounds like a disease. What is ESPN?’” Vitale is still at ESPN today, known everywhere for his over-the-top enthusiasm and a quirky jargon invented by him and adopted by millions of viewers.

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