John Saunders first sat down with us to host The Sports Reporters in the fall of 2001. The great Dick Schaap had been hosting the show for the 10 years or so before that. But Dick had just undergone hip surgery that went tragically wrong, none of us knowing at the time that he would never come out of the hospital.
I knew full well about John's body of work at ESPN all the way back to 1986, about his talent and versatility, his friendship with Jim Valvano, the tireless work John had done for The V Foundation for Cancer Research as a founding board member. But I was about to learn, starting with that first Sunday and then across all the Sundays, about all the good in him, all the humor and intelligence and immense decency. Most of all, I would learn about his gift of friendship.
If you have ever watched The Sports Reporters, you know that we have long been having the kind of conversations about sports that they now have about politics all over the television dial on Sunday mornings, with Mitch Albom and Bob Ryan and Bill Rhoden, with Jemele Hill and Howard Bryant and Israel Gutierrez and all our other panelists.
And what I knew by September 2001, after all my Sundays with Schaap, was how easy he made hosting the show look. What no one knew at the time was whether John would even want to be the full-time host, be part of the conversation on a permanent basis, be working with grown-ups so often acting like great, big kids. Or people talking sports at the end of the bar.
But John was great from the start.
He was tremendous and generous, allowing the rest of us to look good -- sometimes no small feat, believe me. But he really was that good at this kind of television. Best of all, people liked John Saunders. Somehow he had the gift that the very best broadcasters have, in that the people who watched him felt as if he were their friend, too. He made them feel like they were part of our conversation.
"I go through airports," John said, "and people are always telling me the same thing, that sometimes they're talking right along with us."
Later I would tell him that, because of his grace and charm and ability to keep the whole thing under control, he was like Sidney Poitier in "To Sir, With Love," bringing order to the kids in the back of the classroom.
"After the first show, I thought to myself, 'What in the world did I get myself into?'" John said once, laughing.
My dear friend John Saunders died suddenly on Wednesday at the age of 61. He was a husband to Wanda and a father to two daughters. His brother Bernie, his best friend, was a hockey player, just as John was. We used to joke that John was another guy who came down out of Canada and didn't just take up one good job in television -- it was as if he wanted to take up all of them. He was a brilliant studio host, he could do play-by-play and he could somehow navigate, with his usual grace, all the housekeeping of the championship ceremonies after the last game of the college football season.
"He made it all look easy," Mike Breen, the voice of the NBA on ESPN and ABC, said on Wednesday morning. "I used to marvel at the way he made all his jobs look that easy, even though those of us in the business know they weren't."
John had all the best stories about Valvano, and not just the funny ones, but about all the times, at the end of Valvano's long, terrible season battling cancer, when he would hold Valvano in his arms as a way of stopping the chills, even in the hours before Jimmy stood up and gave one of the most moving speeches in the history of sports, his "Don't give up, don't ever give up" speech at the ESPYS.
"Seeing how weak he was, I still don't know how he gave that speech," John would always tell me. "I don't even know how he was able to stay standing. That was about his heart."
John's heart understood V's. John had a ton of heart himself. He was an ex-hockey player, and he underwent so many surgeries because of his hockey career. He also suffered from diabetes, and there were some Sunday mornings when we would all see how weak he was when he showed up in our green room, his hands shaking, drinking orange juice, just trying to feel well enough to do the show. But he always did. And he would, because of his great heart, make it look easy again.
He had a terrible fall one Saturday when he was hosting his college football shows on ABC. Another time there was a car accident, one John was lucky to survive. Of course, he came back from the accident and came back from the fall and, before long, was back in his chair on Sunday morning.
There was a Sunday morning when he wasn't feeling particularly well, so right before he started talking at the top of the show, I leaned over and tapped him on the knee. He got through the show, of course. But it became a tradition with us, or a superstition. I did it every Sunday after that, all the way to our last show together a couple of weeks ago. That day he was telling me again how people were always asking why Lupica was hitting him every Sunday just as the show started.
John laughed, again, and said, "I tell them that your hitting me on one of my bad knees was just your way of showing how much you love me."
There was no way to properly express, or explain, the love that I felt for John Saunders, who loved Wanda and his girls; who loved that he had lived long enough to see Barack Obama become president of the United States; who loved hockey, and his work, and the life his work had given him once he got to this country, permanently, from Canada. And you should know how much he loved doing his parting shots on Sunday; they were beautifully written, passionate when they had to be, funny when they had to be. But always smart.
We have had two permanent hosts on The Sports Reporters: Mr. Schaap and Mr. Saunders. I've had the uncommon good fortune to sit with both of them more than anybody in the history of the show. It should have been a hard thing for John to follow Dick. It became one more thing that he made look extraordinarily easy. In another time in sports, often the highest praise for professionalism was to say this: It was like watching Henry Aaron hit. Sitting next to John Saunders was like that. It was exactly like that.
He is survived by his family, and his friends, and by this network, and by his business. John made his living with words. So many of us do. This is my own way, with memory and profound sadness, of saying one word I never expected to say this soon, not to the big man on my right for all those Sunday mornings: Goodbye.