At last weekend’s Blogs with Balls shindig, we cornered Sportscenter anchor Josh Elliott, and after some cajoling, convinced him to do an interview with this site. Outside of his lust for all the LA sports teams, he’s a pretty fascinating guy who’s had quite a meteoric career rise in the last four years: writer at Sports Illustrated, hosting a show on ESPN, and now hosting the morning Sportscenter. Among the topics covered below: His love for water polo and soccer, dodging camera phones at bars, putting bloggers on TV, and a family history that is likely to blow you away.
Q: J-schooled at Columbia, a staffer at Sports Illustrated, and then you left the writing career behind for TV. Tough decision? Or did all those zeroes on the end of a check make in an easy move?
I hate to equivocate right out of the gate, but it was…and it wasn’t. The day I was hired at SI will always be one of the great and memorable days of my life. Sports Illustrated is why I went to Columbia. I’d been away from journalism for a while. I went to UCSB to play water polo, but soon I found my way to the school’s great paper, the Daily Nexus, and later did some stringing at the local paper, the News-Press. But at that point, I didn’t think I wanted to be a sportswriter, so I went back to LA for a while, then knocked around the world for the better part of a year (best debt I ever fell into), and eventually landed at 20th Century Fox. All along, I’d done the consume-SI-on-Wednesday-afternoon thing for forever, and I researched the masthead, and saw that every few years, the magazine hired a reporter straight from Columbia. A toxic naivete allowed me to think, “Why not me?”
Columbia was great, and I finally nabbed an interviewn at the mag in mid-March. Unfortunately, I heard nothing, and was a few days from graduation and an LA return when I was called back in and told that Seth Davis was taking a summer leave to write a book, and that I could have his job on a temporary basis. I decided I hadn’t heard the last four words, proceeded to show up for work for 17 straight days, and out of what I can only imagine was profound pity, was given a full-time gig. For six extraordinary years, I covered the NFL, and wrote golf and other features in the offseason. I filled out an NFL-scribe roster that included Paul Zimmerman, Peter King, Mike Silver and, my first year, Jack McCallum (and later, Jeff Chadiha), and editor Mark Godich. I was turned loose on the links by editor and friend Jim Herre. I covered snowboarders and surfers. It was a dream realized.
But there were aspects that became more onerous. Our pages shrank almost every year I was there, which meant fewer in-season features. And our top-heavy roster meant that my last NFL story came in the divisional round. And after a while, I found myself wanting more. During the last year-plus I was there, I enjoyed writing for the dot-com as much as I did for the magazine. Suddenly, stories didn’t die if your story went 4 of 13 for 46 yards and two picks. I could write in a more personal voice. I blogged, such as it was. And I did a little radio and did a little TV, including some work on the then-Cold Pizza and on fellow Gaucho Jim Rome’s show. It was there that ESPN execs saw me, and asked me to audition for a new show on ESPN Classic.
When I got the offer, I didn’t know how to feel. Because I realized that the potential opportunity at ESPN was something SI could no longer match. Terry McDonell is a writer’s editor, and the magazine is still loaded. Scott Price is consistently remarkable, as is Tom Verducci, and Gary Smith and all the rest. (Hell, I hired Chris Ballard back at UCSB, and look how that’s turned out.) Actually, I have too many dear friends to further name-check, so I’ll stop there. But the mag has hemorrhaged talent over the decade, lots of young talent across all departments, and that void, in the end, was palpable. Also, it was becoming an increasingly tough schedule: gone from home for four days a week, from September through February, with 15-20 sleepless Sunday nights every fall. I’d been offered a couple TV gigs prior, but they didn’t feel good enough to leave everything for. This one did.
In the beginning, I had even less idea what I was doing than now, and that was difficult. On-the-job training while on the air every day (even for a viewing audience of: my mother) was a humbling and brutal and brilliant experience. Seriously, I loved doing Classic Now. It was anchor college. (No, it was like moving to Spain to learn Spanish, only your boat shipwrecks on a Spanish island, and you’re forced to learn the language to survive.) And all produced by an outnumbered staff that somehow made air with an original, multi-topic hour of television hosted by a guy who’d never done a day of TV in his life on every night. Days began by 7 am, ended well after 8 pm, and it was relentless. But it prepared me for most everything that’s since come; the worst day in Bristol is better, by far, than Classic Now’s best day, if ony for the finely tuned pieces of machinery that are shows here in Bristol, from a technical perspective. Seven months after it began, CN was humanely put down. I had two years left on my deal, and ESPN was good enough to take a flyer on me, given that I’d almost sank one of its networks. I’d like to think that what I lacked in experience and talent and acuity, I made up for in height.
As for the zeroes…I’ll let you know, when I get a few.
Q: You’re nearly a year into the back-to-back-to-back morning Sportscenter experiment. What would you say has worked so far? What hasn’t? What changes would you like to see implemented?
I think the show has been what most people here had hoped it’d be: simply, a live beginning to the news-day, allowing us to properly handle breaking stories, while adding a bit more to the treatments of the previous night’s games. And it’s not just us; the noon show has been every bit as good, with Robert Flores and Chris McKendry getting us through the back nine. (And though I’m one of the “soccer snobs” McKendry killed here, I still love my good friend and former weekend partner. I was lucky enough to work with her when I had even less business being on that set, and am lucky to share these shows with her. But it IS called “stoppage time.” It just is.)
I’ve said it too much, but again, it was a journalistically sound decision to be live in the mornings. The news cycle doesn’t wait for East Coast alarm clocks anymore, thanks largely to sites like yours. We needed to respond to the dynamics of the blogosphere; it is, and remains, an unquestionable part of our genesis. I also think we do a really good job of tweaking the show, hour to hour, mirroring the rise of America from its collective slumber. And by “we”, I mean the best producing unit with whom I’ve worked.
And I’d like to think it’s a watchable show, since live TV plays a bit differently in the morning. You have to find a balance in your energy, your delivery. And to that end, I think Hannah has been a great person to go with on this ride. She faced an brutal task, prior to launch: become a Sportscenter anchor in a matter of a few weeks. And ten months later, it’s as though she’s been here for years.
Simply, though: I think it still feels like Sportscenter. And that’s what’s most important.
As for what hasn’t worked…well…whatever it’s been, it’s almost certainly my fault. One thing that hasn’t always worked: that damn touch screen, ostensibly there for us to dazzle America with live telestration, etc. I think Marcellus Wiley said it best, when, as the camera found him after a particularly painful attempt: ” … and that’ll be the the last time I do THAT live.”
The changes are more quibbles, with nods to the journalistic. I’d love to have more guests, and to be able to spend longer with them. But bound as we are by time constraints, particularly our early start time, relative to the bedtimes of those we cover, you learn to live with it.
And I’d like to see the Blog Buzz continue to take shape. While I think it’s a great element, I think it could be so much more. I actually began pitching a variation of the Buzz a couple years ago, when I did the 6 pm EST Sportscenter, in which various bloggers would be brought on to discuss takes on the day’s big story. Essentially, I’d like to play to blogosphere’s real strength as a collective: the sheer number of different angles that leap from any one story. As it currently runs, it feels a little rote, a little expected. But that remains one of the great things about this place: nothing stays the same…and nothing is above at least an attempt. We can afford to try things, and can live with the growing pains. And as proof, I offer my career.
Q: As evidenced by incidents involving a few of your colleagues, like Scott Van Pelt and Chris Berman, do you ever worry when you’re in a public place like a bar or a block party, ‘man, I better behave, you never know what could get sent to blogs?’ Would you say it’s closer to a concern, or there’s no worry at all? Once, a tipster sent us some photos of you in somebody’s backyard at an engagement party. There was no news or humor angle to them, so we passed.
That somebody took a picture of me holding a beer at the backyard engagement party of my sister-in-law and sent it to you is … depressing, isn’t it? But the point’s largely moot: I’m not recognized that much, so it’s really not a concern of mine the way it is (or would be) for Chris or Scott. I mean, those two are just so obviously THOSE TWO, that it makes a crowded bar or a packed terminal a very target-rich environment. And it was that sort of gotcha-blogging that I think was a discredit to most of what was during the blogosphere’s formative years. (And that’s since grown far less prevalent, I’d argue.) There’s ALWAYS a worry that someone’s taking a picture, somewhere. But like anyone else, you’ve just got to be smart.
Bottom line: seven gold medals and a cereal box mean a camera-phone is ALWAYS lurking. Thankfully, I’ll never have anything close to that problem.
Q: How would you rank your favorite sports to participate in and to watch? You seem to be a soccer guy, obviously a basketball guy, and you have a swimming background.
To play: water polo (which I played into college), and basketball, above all else. I’ll swim and shoot until I die; can’t imagine NOT, really. And for a guy with a torn-up right knee, I’m proud to say that I can still dunk (off two feet, with two hands). I play some tennis (I’ve a muni game crafted on the mean courts of Westchester Park), grab the occasional game of softball. As a kid of limited means growing up, golf was never an option; now, I figure there’ll be plenty of time in my future to spend sunny days disgracing the game. For now, give me blacktop, or a pool….
To watch: My rankings are ever-shifting, and it should be said that I can watch the Dodgers, Lakers and USC football for their respective durations. But as far as general sports are concerned, I’d say that on TV, I prefer, in no particular order: college football, NBA and college basketball, and baseball. (I give thanks every night for the package, which allows me to spend my summers at Chavez Ravine with Vin Scully, the greatest to ever grace a mike.)
Which gets me to a sport that only Duffy loves more: soccer. I trace my ardor back to the heady days of the NASL; I collected LA Aztecs cards, hated the Sockers, was charmed by the Cosmos. And then, it was gone. But I was lucky enough to see a Lazio-Roma match in Rome in the mid-90s, cementing what I already knew. Namely, that the sport…and especially, international soccer…and very specifically, the World Cup…is theater unlike any we produce here. Whole continents halt during the games, and rightfully so. (Cue Duffy screed in support here.)
I’ve also been lucky enough to see celebratory joy, like none other, up close. I was in Greece when it took the Euro 2004 championship, a national eruption (and firing of industrial-grade fireworks) I’d thought I’d never see again…until another vacation took me, by coincidence, to Rome on the night the Azzurri won the 2006 Cup. The city looked like a Hollywood backlot: deserted, shadows thrown by a sun down streets where there were, literally, no people. Just completely surreal. And when Zinedane Zidane’s career ended in ignominy … and the match went to PKs … and Italy finally won, it was as though the Huns had returned, such was the outpouring. Twelve hours later, it was as if they’d won it, minutes before. If everyone could witness that once, at least people would understand what Duffy is so nuts about (and
I used to watch more hockey, but it’s still a great live sport. And I love Barry Melrose.
Q: Seeing as how you’re in the Disney family, what’s the next logical progression for you? Will we see you on Good Morning America? Filling in for Regis? Dancing with the Stars?
I have no idea. My deal here has a ways to go, and I’m happier than I’d have imagined doing the show. Seriously, the alarm is the worst part of my day. But once up, it’s as though I don’t have a job. Even a guest poke at Good Morning America would be tremendous, since I’d be equally interested in interviewing a world leader and in learning to cook the perfect omelette.
And while I took a couple years of ballet as a kid, and can dance a mean tango, But my dancing debut will have to wait until someone gets you video of my safety-dance at the neighbors’ BBQ….
Q: In a conversation yesterday, we briefly talked about how much of a whirlwind year it has been for you professionally and personally. Is your unique family history a topic you wouldn’t mind talking about?
It’s been quite a calendar year, aside from the show’s launch. In the crazy final days before the morning-SC launch, my first child was threatening an early appearance. It was a crazy time, though admittedly, it wasn’t my body under invasion. And then my daughter was born, and life changed forever. Sarina is the greatest gift I’ll ever get, every day. I never knew I could cry like this, every day. Life’s perfect for her existence, every day. As someone who was adopted (as was my brother and sister), I was totally unprepared for the all-consuming bond of blood-relation, of someone sprung from … me.
That was tempered somewhat by the death in late March of my stepfather, Leo Baefsky, a thinker and inveterate Celtics fan with whom I found traction over fiction, the Dodgers and the odd game of racquetball. (The old dude could PLAY.) He’d saved my family from implosion after my father died suddenly when I was 15, helped my mother raise three kids on very limited means, helped me become a man. It was gutting. (Much love up there, Leo….) But my life, however extreme, has always pendulum-swung wildly … and it did again.
And then, two weeks after Leo’s death, life changed again. I came home one day to an envelope, with a small card that began, “Hi, my name is Ashley, and I’m looking for a brother whom my mother gave up for adoption at birth.” And … life as I knew it changed forever. There were two pictures included, of Ashley and her mother, Susan. Her mother … my birth-mother. I spent hours (and hours; thanks to Verizon for understanding) on the phone with both the next few days, having a gap I never knew existed, suddenly filled.
My sister had found her birthparents when she was 18, to mixed results. My brother and I never wanted to, but then, a few years ago, my brother was found by his half-brother … again, to mixed results. And while I’d thought about it from time to time, it never really occurred to me to do so, until a few years ago, at a birthday party, it occurred to me that maybe my birthday was a tough day for someone. Still, couldn’t quite bring myself to call the adoption agency, and ask. And then … the letter, the pics … and a new life.
Funny, too, that when Ashley – who’s many things, but not a sports fan – found me, she and Susan watched Sportscenter a few times, in something they both describe as shock. (Susan wasn’t convinced; Ashley was.) After a few days, though, they stopped watching, since they felt it wasn’t fair that they could see me, but I couldn’t see them.
I got to thank Susan for my life, for not aborting me, for having the strength to ask that she be blindfolded in the delivery room (she said she never could’ve gone through with it, had she seen me) so she could give me what she believed would be a better life. “All these years, I’ve clung to a 30-second cry,” she told me during our first talk. (And so came the tears.) I got to ask about how I came to be, and what it was like to live with her decision. I got to ask why I look the way I do. And I got to hear that she loved me, every day of my life. Sounds trite, but to me, now…well, I know what it is to win the lottery.
Two months ago, I walked into Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel and there she was, sandy-blonde and six feet tall and unquestionably, my sister. Ashley and I wandered, dumbstruck, through the Village for the rest of the day, closed a restaurant and then a bar with good friends, and thus is began. I’ve yet to meet Susan, as I want to do that on her home turf, in northern California (she’s earned that). And after she provided my birth-father’s full name, and 30 minutes of Google, I found him, and a phone number. After 35 years, Susan and he spoke – I only asked that they acknowledge my existence – and that was that. And while the overlap of my life and his is nothing short of staggering, he hasn’t expressed further interest in speaking. And … I’m OK with that. I’ve seen what he looks like, too … and know enough to … well, know enough. Funny thing, though: I … as inveterate a Trojans fan growing up as existed, since like all Angelenos, you picked one and that was it … was conceived (sorry, Susan) in a UCLA fraternity house.
It’s all brought me full circle, of course. I appreciate Sarina even more, knowing what Susan was able to do. I couldn’t conceive of giving Sarina up for adoption … couldn’t begin to imagine what courage that would take. And I appreciate my father and mother, who told us all before we knew what we knew, thereby avoiding any after-school special, you’re-not-my-REAL-parents moments. They never made us feel adopted. Nope. Just loved.
Ain’t life something?
Q: Are you a newspaper in the morning guy, or newspaper on the internet guy in the AM? Both. I flip through the NY Times, the NY Post and Daily News, sometimes the Globe, if it’s there. USA Today makes the walk to set with me. But I also try to read gamers from the home papers of the stories/highlights that I’m assigned. And a quick tour of the blogs, that repeats 2-3 times an hour.
Q: If you had to guess, what would you say the on-air talent split is at ESPN in regards to democrats/republicans? 65-35? Two-to-one sounds about right. Though some of the one’s are my very favorite people, whose passions for the now-minority viewpoint are as unbridled as they are entertaining.
Q: How heavily will you badger ESPN into sending you to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup? I blew past every protocol gate in doing so, admittedly. To be a part of the coverage, there, would be a career-definer. The nexus of history and sport colliding there…a there, with so many stories to tell…would be enough. But that itd be a World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event…and for a sport that ESPN has fully embraced…would be an honor.
Q: Best golf course you’ve played, and how’d you do? I’m tempted to include my ill-fated attempt at conquering Augusta National during the Monday-after-the-Masters press-lottery play, but I won’t. So that leaves Riviera (where I actually played my very first round of golf, to disastrous, don’t-bring-that-guy-back-here-ever-again result) and the public gloriousness of Santa Barbara’s Sandpiper, hard by the Pacific … where we as college dudes would sneak on in the lingering twilight of SB summers. Even then, I knew it would never get any better than that.
Q: Best concert you’ve ever been to. Radiohead, Wiltern Theater, 1996, Paranoid Android tour. It was the best of the new album, but mostly, a hosanna to The Bends … for my money, one of the best rock albums of our time. When Radiohead rocked, they were untouchable. And seeing them then was seeing a band at the height of its powers. A staggering night.
Q: Favorite book? The Right Stuff. Reading it right now for the fourth time. Tom Wolfe, at the height of his powers …
Q: Fill in the blank: If _____ were named as a steroid/PED user, I’d be surprised and crushed. Kirk Gibson
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