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President Obama understands: 'SportsCenter' is respite in a highlight reel

The ESPN show is often a soothing nightcap.

July 21, 2009|CHRIS ERSKINE

President Obama seemed just like the rest of us the other night when he confessed that he likes to end a day with a beer and some alone time watching "SportsCenter." The ESPN show is a nirvana many men already know -- a "speedball of the day's sports news," as one buddy puts it. That seems a fitting narcotic reference. Our fathers might've ended their day with a cold martini. We have "SportsCenter."

OK, let's go right to the highlights. . . .

This peek into Obama's secret world came during an interview with Bob Costas (TV's Jimmy Olsen) before Major League Baseball's All-Star game. Costas referenced a New York Times piece on what ballplayers would ask the president if they had the chance, and he pulled out a question from first baseman Prince Fielder, who's not an actual prince but is rounder than Windsor Castle and might have a few more loose stones:

"Do you ever get to just be by yourself, watch a little TV and not talk to nobody?" Fielder wanted to know, a question that in itself is a tiny day hike into the male psyche, for "not talking to nobody" is something many men need now and again.

Obama responded by explaining that his wife, Michelle (who's as tall as Prince Fielder, but with a lot fewer stones), likes to go to bed early, around 9:30, which is when the president likes to zone out with "SportsCenter."

"That's my most precious time," the president said.

"After I've done the reading, it's 'SportsCenter.' "

With that, he voiced the feelings of millions of boy-men who have made "SportsCenter" an American ritual, a non-guilty pleasure, our martini before bed. As one friend put it: "What more could you want floating around in your head as you drift off to sleep?"

Sure, "SportsCenter" is on all day, like "Seinfeld" reruns or -- go figure -- that awful George Lopez show. But it's not till the sun sets, the kids go down and the crickets get to work that "SportsCenter" is really on its game, fitfully summing up an entire day of gaffes and great plays.

Almost every guy I know watches it. When God rested on that seventh day, even he probably watched it -- though he might've cranked down the volume on that blowhard Chris Berman, who always sounds like he just ate half of Connecticut on a kaiser roll, extra peppers. Buuuuuurp.

No organization is perfect, of course, and if some of the personalities occasionally rub you wrong, remember that the real stars are the producers and video editors who assemble those great montages over and over -- the sensational putts, home runs, TD catches and, everybody's favorite, the daily top 10.

It must be a sniper's life, coolly pulling together hour after hour of breaking news, your pulse pounding like a jackhammer, coffee all over your notes. My fingers tremble just thinking about it. What a kick. What a war zone.

Seems like yesterday it all started. In fact, ESPN's franchise show premiered Sept. 7, 1979, before most of today's pros were born. It's obscure launch point, Bristol, Conn., would go on to become the beautiful downtown Burbank of the '80s and '90s.

"If you're a fan, what you will see in the next few minutes, hours and days to follow may convince you that you've gone to sports heaven," Lee Leonard said in the show's initial minutes.

Over the next 30 years, the show would change the way we watch TV, accommodating our increasingly fickle attention spans, glowing each night like a national campfire. As our work days expanded, so did tightly packaged shows like "SportsCenter." When things were bad, there was always "SportsCenter."

"It's not like something you are watching on TV. It's like something you are a part of," explains L.A. attorney and longtime viewer Rob Owen, in summing up the show's appeal.

"And it's easy. You get it," he says. "You've had this conversation all your life. You even get the nuances of it. It's an affirmation of what you know best. And the 'SportsCenter' guys are both funny and smart, in an unpretentious way. Kenny Mayne is funny. Tim Kurkjian is smart. Peter Gammons is smart. But they are not anchormen lecturing to you. They are your buddies talking to you."

"It's kind of like 'Access Hollywood' for guys," notes real estate exec Brian Ulf.

It's kind of like heaven.


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