Longtime ESPN host John Saunders dead at age 61

Bob Ley: John Saunders was a man of character (3:26)

Bob Ley worked with John Saunders for three decades, and now shares his fondest memories of his longtime friend and colleague. (3:26)

John Saunders, one of the familiar on-air faces of ESPN for nearly 30 years, has died. He was 61.

Saunders hosted studio and play-by-play programming. He covered college football, basketball and the NHL for the network, in addition to anchoring SportsCenter. He was also host of The Sports Reporters.

"This tragic news brings us unspeakable sorrow," Saunders' family said in a statement. "John was the patriarch of our family, and we can't believe he is gone. We are sincerely touched by the outpouring of support and sadness, which is a reflection of the character and integrity that defined him.

"While we don't yet have all the specifics, John wasn't feeling well physically in recent days and sadly, he was unresponsive earlier this morning. We appreciate all of the thoughts and prayers for our cherished father, husband, brother and uncle."

Born in Canada, Saunders was an all-star defenseman in the junior hockey leagues of Montreal. He played at Western Michigan and Ryerson Polytechnical in Toronto before becoming one of the most prominent broadcasters of his time.

Saunders was a founding member of The V Foundation for Cancer Research and served on its board of directors.

"John was an extraordinary talent and his friendly, informative style has been a warm welcome to sports fans for decades," John Skipper, ESPN president and Disney Media Networks co-chairman, said in a statement. "His wide range of accomplishments across numerous sports and championship events is among the most impressive this industry has ever seen.

"More importantly, John was a beloved and devoted family man who cared deeply about people and causes, as evidenced by his long-standing efforts as a passionate board member for The V Foundation for Cancer Research.

"He was one of the most significant and influential members of the ESPN family, as a colleague and mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with his loved ones at this extremely difficult time."

Saunders joined ESPN in December 1986 to anchor SportsCenter. He also became a regular voice on college basketball and the WNBA and hosted ESPN's coverage of the Stanley Cup playoffs from 1993 to 2004. He also worked on coverage of the World Series and Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of John Saunders," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. "As the studio host of NBA Shootaround, a play-by-play announcer for nationally televised NBA and WNBA games and one of the Toronto Raptors' first television voices, John was a vital member of the NBA family for more than two decades and was a friendly and familiar face to our players and fans.

"His achievements in journalism are matched only by his commitment to his community, particularly his service as a founding member of the V Foundation."

Dick Vitale, a longtime colleague of Saunders, said his friend "represented everything that was good in a human being."

"He was all about family and helping people," Vitale said. "He was as good as it gets, and he had deep loyalty and love for others. His work with The V Foundation was so special. He loved Jimmy V and poured his heart and soul into the cause. He was always willing to share and give, and he played a vital role in the success of helping so many. I can't believe this stunning and horrible news. He will be forever in our thoughts."

Chris Berman, who worked with Saunders during his entire 30 years at ESPN, said it was easy for anyone to relate to his former colleague.

"John Saunders was our friend, and he was your friend. You were immediately comfortable with John in 30 seconds," Berman said. "I was fortunate enough to be comfortable with him for 30 years. We knew him for his understated demeanor and understated smile, but we also knew him for his firm commitment to getting things right and treating people right. John was old school, even Old World. Maybe because he was Canadian. Maybe because he was John.

"Professionally he was always willing to be out of the limelight, but make no mistake, with John Saunders, you knew you were in special company. His mark on ESPN is indelible. His mark on all of us even more so."

Other on-air colleagues of Saunders at ESPN took to social media to express their sorrow.

Western Michigan honored Saunders as well, as did retired NBA star Kobe Bryant.

Saunders' survivors include his wife, Wanda, and daughters Aleah and Jenna.