If I have figured one thing out during all the years I have worked in journalism, it is that those who are the best at what they do rarely need to be told — or tell others — just how good they are.
They just know.
John Saunders, who died suddenly and shockingly Wednesday at age 61, was one of those people.
Saunders worked at ESPN for 30 years. He could do anything and everything well, whether it was play-by-play, hosting pre-and postgame shows or hosting “The Sports Reporters.” His range was remarkable. He was as adept at doing the WNBA and the NHL as he was college football or basketball.
Hockey might have been his best sport. A Canadian, he grew up playing the game, and his eyes always lit up when the subject arose.
Saunders was the guy every analyst wanted to work with for two reasons. First, his ego was such that he had no problem setting up his analysts to be the stars of the broadcast, lobbing questions that made those he worked with sound smart. Second, he was a joy to be around.
Saunders was the opposite of someone who thinks being on TV makes you really important. Everyone else was important to him, and you felt that the minute you walked into a room with him.
I worked with John for two years on “The Sports Reporters.” He had been asked to do the impossible: replace Dick Schaap after Dick’s death in 2001. Schaap was “The Sports Reporters” — the rest of us who did the show regularly in those days were planets circling his sun.
And yet Saunders made it work. Why? Because he never tried to be Schaap. He never felt the need to put his own mark on the show. He was content to be himself: smart, funny, prepared. Schaap’s closing essays were unique because he could legitimately drop Muhammad Ali, Bob Knight and Billy Crystal into a one-minute commentary without sounding like he was name-dropping. John never did that: He just gave you 60 seconds of insight.
What’s more, John never felt the need to prove he was the smartest guy on the set. He was the point guard who made everybody better.
The last time I spent extended time with John was a little more than a year ago when I was researching “The Legends Club.” John had become one of Jim Valvano’s closest friends when they worked together at ESPN, both in-studio and while doing games together on the road.
I called John and explained the project and said I would be happy to meet him someplace near where he lived in Westchester, N.Y.
“When are you going to be in New York next?” he asked. “I’ll come to town and meet you.”
Typical John: making it easy for the other guy.
We met at a West Side deli because John was never one to go to some upscale place where he might be recognized. For two hours, he talked about Valvano, whom he had come to think of as an older brother.
Twice, he broke down. The first time was describing his initial hospital visit with Valvano in 1992. After first being diagnosed with cancer in June 1992, Valvano was being treated at Sloan Kettering. When Saunders went to see him, he was shocked by how weak Valvano looked, and it hit him hard that Valvano hadn’t been joking when he had said to him on the phone, “I think I’m going to die.”
“You have to remember: Jim joked about everything,” John said. “I remember when he said that to me. I said, ‘Jim, don’t joke around about this; it’s not funny.’
“He said, ‘John, I’m not joking.’ When I saw him that day, I knew he’d been serious. It just devastated me. But while I was there Pam [Valvano’s wife] and the girls [Valvano had three daughters] were also there, and the feeling the four of them so clearly had for him really inspired me.
“I’d been debating with my wife about having a second child. I wasn’t sure I could handle a second one at that point. On the way home, I pulled off the road, called my wife and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I think we should have another child.’ She said, ‘I’m glad you feel that way because I’m pregnant.’ ”
Their daughter was named Jenna Tianna Vanessa Saunders. The initials—JTV—were not coincidental. They were the same as Valvano’s: James Thomas Valvano.
The second time John broke down was talking about the last time he had seen Valvano, in Duke University Hospital, not long before he died.
“The whole time, all Jim talked about was the V Foundation,” he said. “He had the whole plan laid out. He told me I had to help Mike [Krzyzewski] in every way possible. Then he started talking about Mike and began to cry. That’s when I began to cry, too.”
He cried again that day.
Today, a lot of people are crying.
The news of Saunders’s death is stunning. Different people will sit in his various chairs at ESPN, but none of them will replace him.
The phrase that was oft-repeated by those who knew and worked with him was simple: “John? He’s only the best.”
He was as good as it gets. And never once did he feel the need to tell anyone.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.